When Is Nazi Art Theft Not Nazi or Neo Nazi? When It Was The Anti-Semitic Vichy French
A MASTERPIECE described as stolen in World War ll has been snatched back by US agents.
The headline is classic of how a good – to better than average – news story can lead a city-editor or sub-editor up the garden path.
The original art theft had little or nothing to do with the Nazis but was centred around French anti-Semitism flourishing in the 1940s Vichy Government of Marshall Petain which had introduced a series of anti-Jewish legislation as a nod to it’s German overlords.
A fraud which led to a forced sale of a family estate was allegedly engineered by a Frenchman claiming a debt which was possibly non-existent.
The Tallahassee, Florida, Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science had been exhibiting the Italian Renaissance painting by Girolamo Romano “Christ Carrying The Cross Dragged By A Rascal” (valued at between $2 and $3 million) since Mid March 2011 It was part of an exhibition of 50 Baroque paintings on loan from the prestigious Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy.
The painting is among many works of art and other valuable items taken in a forced sale from the estate of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe. He was an Italian businessman who lived in Paris and had built up an impressive collection.
Gentili died in 1940 in Paris, aged 72, of natural causes, just one month before the Nazi army defeated France. After receiving advanced warning of the impending Nazi invasion, Frederic Gentili’s children and grandchildren fled from France, escaping to Canada and the United States. Other family members died in concentration camps.
Gentili’s grandchildren started international actions to find and reclaim works illegally taken from their family during the Nazi occupation. A French Court of Appeals has already forced the Louvre in Paris to return five paintings bought in the forced sale. One later sold for a world record.
The painting now held by the US will not be returned to Italy until ownership is established.
The original AP and AFP newswire story lineage was very careful not to mention Nazi theft but the headline on it as it flashed around the newsrooms was “US seizes Italian painting said to be stolen by Nazis”
That one was lifted into the Straits Times in Singapore. Somewhere between the original carefully written yarn and release to the wires a city-editor had headlined it “Nazi” when it was probably a French anti-Semitic theft.
The real story here is the chaos in the international art world after the 1999 French court ruling which meant every painting in the large collection sold off in the 1941 forced sale is suspect and definitely dubious ownership.
Where artwork was known to have been the result of Nazi theft great efforts were made to return it. The Frederic Gentili collection was snatched as a result of a forced sale which may have been the result of a fraud and the French courts ruled the sale was illegal.
Absolutely straight dealing London dealers have been caught and a flavour of the full international intrigue is in the 2001 New York Times story
…and that’s only part of the full story but worth a weekend read.
Even Princeton University Art Museum was caught out: Its Saint Bartholomew by Bernardino Pinturicchio was bought in good faith in 1994 and the provenance showed it was sold in Paris in 1941…it still has the picture after agreeing a payment to the Gentili family.
The family also started actions under Victim of the Holocaust legislation against two unknown Swiss banks after repeatedly asking for access to deposit boxes. The banks had denied any accounts existed.
A Holocaust Victim Assets Litigation tribunal found they did and published the findings in 2007.
The wheels grind slowly but exceedingly small….